Toss the OxyContin and Turn to Pot for Pain Relief Instead?

More and more cancer patients are toking or turning to marijuana CBD pills for pain relief.
More and more cancer patients are toking or turning to marijuana CBD pills for pain relief.
Chuck Grimmett/Flickr

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants Americans to jump off the dangerous OxyContin train. Instead, the CDC is advising people suffering chronic pain to take ibuprofen and commit to physical therapy.

Ibruprofen? Nonsense, says Dr. Gene Dorio, a Santa Clarita physician who specializes in geriatrics and internal medicine.

“The (CDC) wants doctors to stop using opioids but offers nothing as an alternative except Tylenol and ibuprofen,” Dr. Dorio says. “People who are bedridden have diffuse pain that over-the-counter drugs just won’t relieve. They’re just not effective. There’s no doubt that marijuana works on many different ailments.”

Dorio hosts a Wednesday morning radio show on KHTS 1220 AM and often talks about pain relief through marijuana. So does Dorio’s patient and co-host Barbara Cochran, 80, a cancer survivor who says she’s alive because of medicinal marijuana. She says she wants to make sure the CDC knows how she feels about the suggestion to take aspirin for severe pain.

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“If you’ll pardon the expression,” Cochran says, “the CDC is full of shit.”

Not only did marijuana ease Cochran’s pain — she claims cannabis oil cured her stage 4 lymphoma.

Cochran’s son had convinced his mother that marijuana helped people with arthritis, seizures, autism and pain — and that the hydrocodone she was taking was going to destroy her liver and kidneys and turn her into a junkie. At her son’s urging, Cochran took her first cannabidiol pill — a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana that doesn’t get a person high — five years ago, just days after her diagnosis, and continues to take one pill every day.

Cochran is not alone in her belief that pot may hold the key to fighting cancer. The National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health, states on its website: "Laboratory and animal studies have shown that cannabinoids (the active ingredient in cannabis) may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells. … They may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth and blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow."

In a 2013 SF Weekly story, writer Chris Roberts points out how Michelle Aldrich survived her bout with cancer by using CBD oil: “She’s been telling anyone who will listen that, along with diet and chemotherapy, a concoction of highly concentrated cannabis oil eliminated her cancer in less than four months."    

If cannabis might help cure cancer, why not prescribe it for pain relief, a use that far more evidence supports? “It’s not off the table,” CDC spokeswoman Erin Sykes says of the potential for the agency to recommend marijuana for pain and other ailments. “But for the CDC to put a stamp of approval on medical marijuana drugs, there have to be more studies. The science is not there yet.”

The science is not there yet because of the Catch-22 nature of how potential drugs are tested. Like heroin and cocaine, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it difficult for scientists to receive federal approval to study its benefits. But without more testing, the CDC and the Federal Drug Administration refuse to sanction medicinal pot.

A dozen years ago, Sandy Illson, who’s now 60, was driving her truck when she skidded on some black ice in her native Michigan, snapped a telephone pole in half and ran into a maple tree. Her son died in the crash, and she was left with a crushed ankle, a bum left knee and two damaged neck discs. When she came out of her coma, her pain was so intense that a doctor prescribed six OxyContin twice a day. It didn’t take long for her to get hooked.

“My pharmacist said I was taking enough to kill a small horse,” Illson says. “I told my doctor to get me something else. The pain was horrible. Horrible. The withdrawal from the OxyContin was the worst.”

To kick the Oxy habit, she says she started taking methadone — artificial heroin meant to wean people off the real thing.

Then Dr. Dorio told Illson she might want to try weed.

“Marijuana keeps the pain down,” Illson says, “and I don’t have to take as much methadone.”

Dr. Thomas Polucki is a chiropractor who also advises patients to use pot. “We as doctors get caught in the middle, because we’re supposed to be the gatekeepers of hydrocodone and OxyContin access,” Polucki says. “Medical marijuana and cannabinoids are the answers.”

Cancer survivor Cochran says her husband, who suffers from arthritis, hasn’t been as open-minded about medical marijuana.

“He’s from the old school,” Cochran says. “He continues to take hydrocodone.”


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